The IAAI and CFITrainer.Net present these podcasts with a focus on issues relating to fire investigation. With expertise from around the world, the International Association of Arson Investigators produces these podcasts to bring more information and electronic media to fire investigators looking for training, education and general information about fire investigation. Topics include recent technologies, issues in the news, training opportunities, changes in laws and standards and any other topic that might be of interest to a fire investigator or industry professional affected by fire. Information is presented using a combination of original stories and interviews with scientists, leaders in fire investigation from the fire service and the law enforcement community.
Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today we are going to dig into a topic making news right now, the cause of spontaneous fires in electric cars. A little background first. We covered fires in hybrid vehicles on this podcast back in 2009. Obviously, in the ten years since, a lot has changed. Now, we are talking more and more about fully electric vehicles and the challenges they pose for fire suppression and fire investigation. Although plug-in electric cars are only about 2% of the vehicles on the road right now, which is about 5.6 million cars worldwide, the forecast is staggering. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2030, there will be 125 million electric cars on the road. Growth year over year is astonishing — from last year to this year, the number of electric cars on the road increased 64%. Fire investigators are going to be seeing more and more electric vehicles involved in vehicle fires, so now is the time to get out ahead of this trend with better awareness and training in electric vehicle fires.
A pretty simple Google search will turn up multiple incidents of fires in electric cars, some starting after a crash and some spontaneous with seemingly no precipitating event. Recently, the coverage has been about spontaneous fires that have started in Tesla models, some of which were plugged in and charging and some of which were parked and not charging. These incidents have taken place in societies as diverse as the US, Hong Kong, and China. In incidents not related to crashes, the most common cause identified to date appears to be the lithium ion battery and/or the charging process. Government has begun to get involved. China, the world’s biggest market for electric cars, recently ordered electric vehicle manufacturers to check their vehicles for problems with batteries, waterproof protection, wire harnesses, and charging devices. Industry has also begun reacting with extreme caution; In June, Audi recalled its first all-electric vehicle sold in the U.S over concerns about battery fires. E-Tron SUVs have also been recalled over fears that a problem with the wiring harness can allow moisture to get into the battery, thus potentially causing a fire.
From the perspective of the fire investigator, what is important here is to ask how we can be aware of potential fire causes in an electric vehicle and how we can obtain training to investigate those potential fire causes. Business Insider reviewed Tesla fire incidents and found that most fires seemed to be caused by assault to the vehicle’s battery, typically from a high speed crash. When a battery is damaged, it can go into “thermal runaway,” where the temperature in one cell rapidly increases, causing the temperature in another cell to rapidly increase, and so on in a chain reaction. In some cases, this process self-arrests before a fire occurs. In others, it continues until the ignition temperature of the materials is reached and open flaming combustion occurs. Thermal runaway incidents have been reported in multiple electric and hybrid vehicles, including the Zotye M300 EV, Chevrolet Volt, Fisker Karma, Dodge Ram 1500 Plug-in Hybrid, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Outlander P-HEV.
But what about the fire cases where the electric vehicle was parked, either charging or not charging. What caused those fires? There are many possibilities to consider in an investigation.
In the Business Insider article, Brock Archer, an auto-extrication expert, states that lithium ion battery fires are most commonly caused by liquid, dead short, or spontaneous combustion. Of those three, spontaneous combustion is a rare event, one battery cell in a billion. But, each electric car battery contains thousands of cells, so, with millions of those batteries on the road, spontaneous combustion is definitely a possibility. Most of these stationary electric vehicle fires occurred while the vehicle was charging or fully charged, leading Tesla to recently release a software update to change how the charging process and intensity are managed. So, the charging process itself may also be a contributing cause.
Further, Business Insider notes that manufacturing defects are possible. In September 2018, there was an oil spill in the Panasonic portion of Tesla's Gigafactory. Mechanical oil from a manufacturing machine that presses battery chemicals into a sheet got into the finished sheets. Millions of finished cells had to be examined for contamination. Even tiny fragments of metal getting into the battery chemicals during manufacturing could later cause a short or a fire in the finished battery installed in a vehicle.
A report by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that assessed potential lithium-ion battery vehicle safety issues identified another cause that may be at play in electric vehicle fires that seem to occur without any precipitating event. The report found that, “Li-ion failure processes may be understood as electrochemical or stress induced ‘damage’ at the cell level that incubates, initiates, and grows until failure. Li-ion failure processes are time-dependent process. While failure can sometimes occur very rapidly after a cell is damaged, damage may also sometimes grow over many years and many duty cycles, causing delayed failure long after damage is initiated.” This means that a vehicle battery that was previously damaged might not cause a fire immediately; the damage may grow over extended periods of time and later result in a fire that seems unconnected to the damaging event that occurred a long time ago. And, the damage may not even be dramatic, like a crash. The report further explains, “For each battery chemistry, design, and expected duty cycle, there is a range of temperatures and range of operating voltage in which electrochemistry is dominated by intercalation mechanisms. Outside this range, undesirable side reactions may occur which can lead to self-heating (exothermic reactions) and/or internal electrical shorts (excessive flow of electrons). Exothermic reactions and/or internal electrical shorts may be triggered by manufacturing defects, or mechanical, electrical, or thermal errors, misuse or abuse. If allowed to continue, these reactions or shorts can create conditions for self-heating within the cell; which grow to become uncontrolled increases in temperature and pressure (thermal runaway); and potentially end in venting or catastrophic failure of the cell.”
At this time, as the body of data on electric vehicle fire causes continues to build, it is important that all reasonable accidental causes are examined through the scientific method. And, reporting findings is critical to building the data that will help us better understand electric vehicle fire causes and spur industry to address and eliminate those causes.
One more note on a fact can make fires that involve an electric car battery more difficult to investigate. A lithium ion battery fire cannot be extinguished with foam or dry chemicals. Only very large volumes of water over a sustained period of time can put it out. Because of the long burning time, damage can be extensive and thus investigation more difficult. And, it must be noted, even extinguishing an electric car battery fire is no guarantee another fire will not occur. In February 2019, a Tesla caught fire in a Pittsburgh residential garage. The fire was extinguished and the vehicle transported to a vehicle shop for further investigation. The vehicle caught fire again only hours after arriving at the shop.
Thank you for being with us today. Electric vehicle fires is, frankly, a big topic and we’ve just scratched the surface here of what a fire investigator needs to be thinking about when working an electric vehicle fire. We encourage you to continue to seek out resources to educate yourself on electric vehicle fire causes and to put this topic on your list of emerging issues you want to keep current on. This podcast’s page has links to some news articles and resources to get you started.
A little bit of news from the IAAI.
We want to say congratulations to the Nebraska Chapter for quite a milestone fifty years, with the IAAI. You go Nebraska! Nebraska shows 426 users on CFITrainer.Net and there are four listed CFI’s that are showing up here on CFITrainer.Net.
As always check out the FireArson.com website for information of upcoming training around the globe. Classes are added on a regular basis and while you’re there save some money on your registration for ITC coming next April 26th thru May 1st in Las Vegas at Planet Hollywood. To learn more about ITC, go to www.IAAIITC.com, for a site dedicated to our premier annual training and networking event. Those who register early save one hundred dollars. At least go over to the site and begin to make your plans. There is still some time to get in on the early bird special.
Thanks for joining us today on this podcast. Stay cool and stay safe out there and we’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net.
For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.
Gray, Sarah. 125 Million Electric Vehicles Will Be on the Road by 2030, Agency Says. 31 May 2018.
Lambert, Fred. Electrek. Tesla car caught on fire while being investigated for another fire. 18 April 2019.
Lithium-ion Battery Safety Issues for Electric and Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation. October 2017.
Lopez. Linette. Insiders describe a world of chaos and waste at Panasonic's massive battery-making operation for Tesla. Business Insider. 16 Apr 2019.
Lopez. Linette. Life, death, and spontaneous combustion — here's why the debate about Tesla fires just got more fierce. Business Insider. 26 Apr 2019.
Matousek, Mark. The NTSB is investigating a Tesla Model S crash that killed two teens after the car's battery caught fire. Business Insider. 10 May 2018.
Plug-In Electric Vehicle Fire Incidents. Wikipedia. Accessed 24 July 2019, 1:34 PM.
Schmidt, Bridie. There are now 5.6 million electric cars on the road, up 64% from last year. The Driven. 13 Feb 2019.
Stringer, David, Jie Ma, and Jinshan Hong. Tesla Fires Sound Alarms About Electric-Car Battery Safety. Bloomberg. 16 May 2019.
Tesla and NIO Fires in China Spur Electric-Car Safety Checkups. Bloomberg News. 17 June 2019.
Tsui, Chris. Tesla Issues Over-the-Air Update to Charging Settings After Shanghai Garage Fire Investigation. The Drive. 28 June 2019.
Chevrolet Volt Battery Incident Overview Report. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation. January 2012.
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
A fire occurred on the night of Feb. 20, 2003, in The Station nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue, West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Arc Mapping, or Arc Fault Circuit Analysis, uses the electrical system to help reconstruct a scene, providing investigators with a means of determining the area of a fire’s origin.
This module introduces basic electrical concepts, including: terminology, atomic theory and electricity, Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law, AC and DC power.
A fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, SC that resulted in the deaths of nine fire fighters.
This module looks at the many ways fire investigators enter and grow in the profession through academia, the fire service, law enforcement, insurance, and engineering.
This module will present a description of the IAAI organization.
This module takes a closer look at four of the most commonly-reported accidental fire causes according to "NFPA Fact Sheet.
This program brings three highly experienced fire investigators and an attorney with experience as a prosecutor and civil litigator together for a round table discussion.
The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in civil proceedings such as fire loss claims and product defect lawsuits.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in criminal proceedings.
This module covers the foundation of DNA evidence: defining, recognizing, collecting, and testing.
This program provides a practical overview of how to perform the baseline documentation tasks that occur at every scene.
This module will discuss the techniques and strategies for conducting a proper science-based fire scene investigation and effectively presenting an investigator’s findings in court as an expert witness.
This module presents critical electrical safety practices that every fire investigator should implement at every scene, every time.
This self-paced program examines the fire investigator's ethical duties beyond the fire scene.
As social media has emerged as a powerful force in interpersonal communications, fire investigators are being confronted with new questions...
Should you work for a private lab as a consultant if you are on an Arson Task Force? How about accepting discounts from the local hardware store as a “thanks” for a job well done on a fire they had last year?
This module takes investigators into the forensic laboratory and shows them what happens to the different types of fire scene evidence that are typically submitted for testing.
This module teaches the foundational knowledge of explosion dynamics, which is a necessary precursor to investigating an explosion scene.
This module addresses the foundations of fire chemistry and places it within the context of fire scene investigations.
The program is designed to introduce a new Palm/Pocket PC application called CFI Calculator to users and provide examples of how it can be used by fire investigators in the field.
This module examines these concepts to help all professionals tasked with determining fire origin and cause better understand fire flow dynamics so they can apply that knowledge to both to fire investigation and to fire attack.
This module provides a road map for fire officers to integrate and navigate their fire investigation duty with all their other responsibilities and describes where to obtain specific training in fire investigation.
The evaluation of hazards and the assessment of the relative risks associated with the investigation of fires and explosions are critical factors in the management of any investigation.
This module will describe the most commonly encountered fire protection systems.
This module presents best practices in preparing for and conducting the informational interview with witnesses in the fire investigation case.
This module provides instruction on the fundamentals of residential building construction with an eye toward how building construction affects fire development.
This module teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
This program discusses how to access insurance information, understand insurance documents, ask key questions of witnesses, and apply the information learned.
This module offers a basic introduction about how some selected major appliances operate.
This program introduces the fire investigator to the issues related to the collection, handling and use of evidence related to a fire investigation.
This program takes you inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) archives of some of the most interesting and instructive test burns and fire model simulations they have ever conducted.
The program provides foundational background on the scope of the youth-set fire problem, the importance of rigorous fire investigation in addressing this problem, and the role of key agencies in the response to a youth-set fire.
This module provides a thorough understanding of the ways an investigation changes when a fire-related death occurs.
This self-paced program will help you understand what to expect at a fire where an LODD has occurred, what your role is, how to interact with others, and how to handle special circumstances at the scene.
This program will introduce the fire investigator to the basic methodologies use to investigate vehicle fires.
This module presents the role natural gas can play in fire ignition, fuel load, and spread; the elements of investigating a fire in a residence where natural gas is present; and the potential role the gas utility or the municipality can play an investigation.
This self-paced program covers fundamental legal aspects of investigating youth-set fires, including the juvenile justice system, legalities of interviews and interrogations, arson statutes, search and seizure, and confidentiality.
This program discusses the latest developments in expert testimony under the Daubert standard, including the MagneTek case recently decided in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
This module focuses on how to manage investigations that have “complicating” factors.
This module uses the Motive, Means, and Opportunity case study to demonstrate how responsibility is determined in an arson case.
This program covers the general anatomy of a motor vehicle and a description of typical components of the engine, electrical, ignition, and fuel systems.
This self-paced program is the second part of a two-part basic introduction to motor vehicle systems. This program describes the function and major components of the transmission, exhaust, brake, and accessory systems.
This module educates the investigator about NFPA 1033’s importance, its requirements, and how those requirements impact the fire investigator’s professional development.
This module reviews the major changes included in the documents including the use of color photos in NFPA 921 and additional material that supports the expanded required knowledge list in NFPA 1033 Section 1.3.7.
The program illustrates for the fire investigator, how non-traditional fire scene evidence can be helpful during an investigation.
This module introduces the postflashover topic, describes ventilation-controlled fire flow, illustrates how the damage left by a postflashover can be significantly different than if that fire was extinguished preflashover.
This module lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
In this module, you will learn more about how cancer develops, what occupational exposure risks to carcinogens exist at fire scenes, and how to better protect yourself against those exposures.
The use of the process of elimination in the determination of a fire cause is a topic that has generated significant discussion and controversy in the fire investigation profession.
This module teaches the basics of the electrical power generation, distribution, and transmission system.
This module presents the basics of natural gas and its uses and system components in a residence.
This module explains the principles of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as contained in the amendment and according to subsequent case law, and applies them to typical fire scene scenarios.
One of the legal proceedings that may require the fire investigator to testify is a deposition. Depositions are often related to civil proceedings, but more and more jurisdictions are using them in criminal cases.
Deposing attorneys employ a variety of tactics to learn about the expert witness giving testimony, to try to unsettle that witness to see how he/she handles such pressure, and to probe for weaknesses to exploit.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
The basics of the scientific method are deceptively simple: observe, hypothesize, test, and conclude.
This module addresses the foundations of thermometry, including the definition of temperature, the scales used to measure temperature and much more.
This program presents the results of flame experiments conducted with a candle.
This self-paced program explains to non-investigators the role of the fire investigator, what the fire investigator does, how the fire investigator is trained, what qualifications the fire investigator must meet.
This module will untangle the meanings of "undetermined," straighten out how to use the term correctly, talk about how not to use it, and describe how to properly report fires where "undetermined" is the cause or classification.
This module will advise fire investigators on how to approach the fact-finding procedures necessary and validate a hypothesis.
This module provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned.
This self-paced program provides a basic framework for structuring the management of fire cases and fire investigators.
This module illustrates how wildland fires spread, explains how to interpret burn patterns unique to these types of fires.
This module presents the key elements of the initial origin and cause report and methods of clearly presenting findings in a professional manner.